I have a chapter in a newly released book on happiness, extracts of which have been published in The Conversation. My argument, summed up as Measures of happiness tell us less than economics of unhappiness, is a reworking of points I’ve made in the past. In particular, I argue that it’s more useful to think about removing avoidable sources of unhappiness, and that has been the great success of social democracy and the welfare state.
Back in 2013, I gave a rare nod of praise to the Newman government for a proposal to get rid of reverse parallel parking in the test for new drivers. I’m happy to say that this has actually happened. The new test will focus on safe driving, rather than on skills that might come in handy for drivers, like reverse parking or changing the oil.
The original post is over the fold
I have a piece in The Guardian pointing out that the Abbott government’s Red Tape Reduction program is basically cover for a couple of big measures benefit the mining and gambling industries.
A bigger question raised by the piece: why does bureaucracy and red tape seem to grow without limits? Anyone who has ever worked as an academic, faced with a proliferation of pro-vice-chancellors, executive deans and multiple layers of hierarchy has certainly asked this question, and there’s nothing unusual about academics. The uselessness of administrators is the central theme of the comic strip Dilbert, popular in offices around the world.
The obvious explanations are
(a) stupidity; and
(b) administrative bloat benefits administrators and they are the ones who make the decisions
I don’t think either of these works adequately. Stupidity is certainly common, but the phenomenon is too pervasive to be explained in this way. As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).
My own hypothesis is that every big mistake (for example, an undetected embezzlement or a mishandled episode of harassment) produces a permanent bureaucratic response designed to prevent a recurrence. This is very costly to reverse (who wants to deal with the first big embezzlement just after they downsized the accounting department) even if it would, in some sense, be less costly to put up with occasional failures. Moreover, for both good and bad reasons, I think we are, as a society, becoming less tolerant of institutional failures across a wide range of activities (systematic wrongdoing by financial institutions is a major counterexample but, I think, exceptional). So, we have more checks and balances, and more bureaucrats to enforce them.
Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, as Niels Bohr is supposed to have said. I’ve certainly found it so. Apart from the obvious possibility of being wrong, there’s the risk that others will misrepresent you. But, as long as you don’t take it too seriously, it’s helpful to frame discussion around a sharp prediction. So here are three for 2015
1. Peak Oil: I predict that global oil production (conventional and shale etc) will decline in 2015 and will never again reach the peak level of 2014. My reasoning is that 2014 supply can’t be sustained at prices below, say, $75, and (given a downward underlying trend in the developed world), 2014 demand won’t be reached again at prices above $75.
2. The End of Bitcoin: I’ve written in the past that “Bitcoins will attain their true value of zero sooner or later, but it is impossible to say when.” However, I now think the necessary conditions are in place for most holders of Bitcoins to recognise that their asset consists of used-up computation cycles with zero value. In particular, because mainstream merchants now accept Bitcoin (which they immediately sell), it’s possible for hardcore believers to dispose of their holdings without explicitly betting that the price will fall. Of course, the price won’t fall precisely to zero, but it should be well below $100 by the end of the year, and below $10 not long after that.
3. The Paris conference on climate change, will produce a half-baked compromise, which nevertheless represents progress towards stabilization at 2 degrees of warming: OK, this is pretty much a no-brainer, given that this is what we’ve been seeing ever since Kyoto in 1997, but I want to be sure of getting at least one right.
Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.
And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.
Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.
In the meantime, Lest we Forget.
That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.
Channel 9 News yesterday had a story about how the massive worldwide TV audience for G20 news coverage will discover that
* Brisbane has graffiti
* Roma St Transit Centre is ugly.
In reality of course, they will discover that we have a Convention Centre and hotels, providing backdrops for political leaders to pontificate about nothing much.
Here’s an assorted list of things that once seemed archetypally American, but have pretty much reached the end of the line. More precisely, there are no new ones, or hardly any, and the existing examples look increasingly down at heel
Nuclear power stations
Feel free to discuss, deny, add to the list and so on.
Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court’s non-decision on equal marriage has caused plenty of debate, including John Holbo’s smackdown of NR’s Matthew Franck.
The discussion got me thinking about the broader problem of legal reasoning, at least in its originalist and textualist forms, and also in precedent-based applications of common law. The assumption in all of these approaches is that by examining (according to some system of rules) what was legislated or decided in the past, lawyers and judges can determine the law as it applies to the case at hand. There are all sorts of well-known difficulties here, such as how words written a century ago should apply to technologies and social structures that did not exist at the time. And it often happens that these approaches produce results that seem unacceptable to most people but for which a legislative or constitutional fix is impossible for some reason.
It’s always seemed to me, though, that there is a much bigger problem with this approach, namely the implicit assumption that “the law” actually exists. That is, it is assumed that, if the appropriate procedure is used to interpret the inherited text, and applied to the problem at hand, it will produce a determinate answer. But why should this be true? The same law might contain contradictory clauses, supported by contradictory arguments, voted in by different majorities, and understood at the time of its passage in contradictory ways. Most notably, the same constitution might grant universal freedoms in one place, while recognising slavery in another.
At a minimum, such contradictions mean that there is no determinate law on the particular points of difference. But the problem is worse than this. The law rarely prescribes an exact answer in a specific case. The standard view of legal reasoning is the principles can be extracted from case law, then applied to new cases. But contradictory laws and contradictory cases produce contradictory principles. The ultimate stopping point is the paradox of entailment: a contradiction implies anything and everything.
I don’t have a fully worked out answer to this problem but I think it underlies a lot of the disquiet so many people feel about legal reasoning (apart from the ordinary disappointment when the answer it produces isn’t the one we want).
In the course of a recent minor tiff on Twitter, accused of bandwagon jumping, I asserted that I had not only supported the Rabbitohs since (just) before their last premiership, but that I was old enough to remember actual rabbitohs, that is, itinerant sellers of rabbit meat. Now I’m wondering whether I’m conflating rabbit as an occasional treat with bottle-ohs, early recyclers who, as the name implies, went door to door collecting bottles. I can definitely remember a bottle-oh with a horse-drawn cart (this would have been around 1960 in Adelaide).
Any other readers of a certain age want to weigh in?
Also, is there a word for Twittertiffs?
I have about a week to go before my MS Swimathon, and haven’t yet heard the voice of the public on whether I should go the full Tony in my post-event photo. I’m going to set the default to “No”, and require five Yes votes, accompanied by $20 (or more) donations to change that.
If you’d rather give to an activist cause, I’ve been asked to advertise Esther Gyorki’s half-marathon run supporting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
I’m doing another of my fundraisers, this time for Multiple Sclerosis. I’m in a team of six people who will do a 12 hour swim relay in a couple of weeks. So, I get to swim two hours, which I’ve never done before. I’m a bit worried about foot cramps, which tend to be the biggest constraint on my swimming (apart from my appalling technique). But, if that happens, I’ll do the two hours in separate stages. So, you can be fairly sure of getting your money’s worth.
As an added inducement, anyone who donates at least $20 gets to vote on the “Tony Abbott question”. Should I post a pic in budgie-smugglers after the event. Feel free to debate, but only those who donate get a say, just like in real life politics.
Form letter, with details, over the fold
I’ll be at a session of Brisbane Writers Festival tomorrow talking on Advance Australia Fair (inequality and all that).
Also, with about 50 000 others, I’ll be running Bridge to Brisbane on Sunday.I haven’t got around to setting up my charity page for this, but please give to the good cause of your choice.
More events soon.
Like others, I’m mystified by the “ice bucket challenge” in which, as I understand it, people agree to have a bucket of ice water dumped over their heads, rather than giving money to charity. This is reminiscent of the famous Piranha Brothers’ “Other Operation”, in which they threatened not to beat their victims up if they did not pay them the so-called “protection money”.
Still, it seems as if there is some interest in variants on the standard fundraising challenge in which you pay money to charity to encourage friends, bloggers, C-list celebrities to do difficult, painful or humiliating things. It’s struck me that my upcoming participation in the Sunshine Coast 70.3 Triathlon provides a nice twist on the ice bucket challenge.
I ate at my local Italian restaurant just now and, as often happens, the credit card call didn’t go through, so I signed instead of using a PIN. Given that the banks have announced this won’t be possible in a few months time what will they do about this fairly common problem? Any experts out there?
Another Anzac Day. A solemn occasion to remember the heroism and sacrifice of those who died and to recall with horror the waste of young lives in a war of rival empires. Australians had no quarrel with Turks, nor they with us. And, in the Middle East, as elsewhere, the war achieved nothing and resolved nothing, but rather generated and inflamed conflicts that continue to this day.
For quite some time, I’ve been saying that research effort into the economics of happiness would be better devoted to researching unhappiness. I’ve now presented this argument in the excellent online magazine Aeon, with the takeaway
So, perhaps we need a new research programme, to examine how unhappiness really works. Does hunger, or unemployment, or the loss of a family member to preventable illness make you a stronger and better person? Is striving after more and better possessions more fulfilling than satisfaction with what you have? It’s obvious from the way I’ve posed these questions what I believe the answer to be. But genuine research into the economics of unhappiness might yield some surprising answers to such questions as these, and reveal new questions that we have never before considered.
Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.
This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.
I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
Also, reposting this petition appeal from Alanna Skelly, who used to comment here as “Alice” and “Alanna Hardman”. Please keep discussion thoughtful and civil
I’ve started the petition “Tony Abbott: Stop all our banks accommodating BITCOIN transactions.” and need your help to get it off the ground.
Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here’s the link:
Here’s why it’s important:
Please stop BITCOIN in Australia because our youth are using this method to buy drugs from online sites across the globe. The drug sellers are mushrooming becausing BITCOIN is operating a tumbler style of making the ultimate recipient of the drug money untraceable. Our children are dying. Children in the US are dying. Please support this petition because I have just lost my twenty one year old son to the online drug trade. Its not the little fish the police need to go after. First stop BITCOIN from hiding these criminals. Make it illegal for any Australian financial institution to deal with BITCOIN accounts. Without the might and IT expertise of BITCOIN these criminals who despatch toxic substances can not hide themselves. The beautiful kind hearted boy in this photo has died before he should have. This petition has been written by his mother.
You can sign my petition by clicking here.
Long-term readers of the comments section will recall Alanna Skelly, who posted here as “Alanna” and “Alice”. Yesterday, I received from her the sad news that she had lost her son to an overdose of drugs, purchased online using Bitcoin. Alanna has started a petition on change.org, asking that banks should stop facilitating such transactions by accommodating Bitcoin.
Readers will have different views on the policy issues, but this isn’t the occasion to discuss them, so there will be no comments on this post. Those who would like to support the petition can follow the link above.
Regardless of our politics, I’m sure everyone here will join me in extending to Alanna and her family our deepest sympathies.
I’ve seen a number of interesting things in relation to road safety lately, some of which have caused me to revise my thoughts.
First, there’s the question of retesting for older drivers. This seemed self-evidently desirable to me, based on data showing very high fatality rates per km driven and that in most collision involving older (75+) drivers they are at fault. However, a Twitter discussion (must work out how to do Storify!) following this Background Briefing showed that things aren’t nearly so clear-cut. The fatality evidence isn’t really helpful, since it just reflects the fact that an accident is more likely to be fatal to an older person than to a younger one. The differential hazard is far greater for falls, which suggests that forcing older people out of cars may not be beneficial. And overall, the evidence on the benefits of testing appears to be mixed at best (the Monash expert quoted in BB overstates the case a bit, in my view).
More directly relevant to me (at least for the next decade or two) there are some suggestions regarding cyclist: a one-meter clearance requirement for cars , relaxation of abolition of helmet laws and requirements for licensing, rego and third-party insurance. The first is obviously sensible, the big issue being enforcement. On the third, I agree in principle with licensing and TPI, the main problem being what to do about children. Registration seems undesirable until we have a proper system of road pricing.
On helmets, I’m genuinely ambivalent, particularly after witnessing a head impact accident this morning (no injury, thanks to helmet). I would always use a helmet, but I’m not happy about the claim that Australia should have different helmet laws than Europe because our roads are more dangerous, and our drivers more aggressive. Granted that this is true we need to change these conditions. The obvious first step would be to reduce the current 60/50 speed limits for suburban streets and subarterial roads respectively to 50/40. This would greatly benefit road users (including both cyclists and older drivers) who can’t or don’t want to travel at or near existing speed limits. The welfare cost of slightly lower limits would, in my view, be trivial. I have zero sympathy for those (echoing smokers and polluters of all kinds) who want their convenience to justify imposing risks on others.
The other point though relates to those aggressive drivers. Whereas the evidence on older drivers is weak, there is ample evidence that aggressive driving, manifested particularly in traffic violations, is associated with higher crash risk, as is at-fault involvement in a previous crash. The current points system is absurdly lenient in this respect. The 12 point allowance lets drivers be convicted over a serious offence (running stop lights, speeding in a school zone etc) every year without any restriction on driving, and the suspension period for violators is only few months. I’d suggest a lifetime allowance of 24 points, with permanent restrictions thereafter, as well as reducing the three year allowance to 8 points, and increasing suspension periods.
The restrictive treatment of drivers at the older and younger ends of the age spectrum contrasts sharply with the treatment of a drivers license as a natural right for the 25-75 group, to be withdrawn only in extreme cases. In my view, aggressive drivers should be taken off the road to make them safer for the rest of us, including non-motorists and those whose reflexes aren’t sharp enough to cope with the high-speed high-risk driving of others.
I think I’ve written before about creative procrastination, but I can’t immediately find it, so I’ll restate my idea here. Whenever you have an urgent deadline, the desire to procrastinate becomes irresistible. Rather than trying to resist it, the optimal response is to succumb, but to have a list of necessary but non-urgent tasks at hand (as I’ve argued before, there’s no need to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Just divide them into those you are going to do, and those you aren’t, then do them in whatever order suits). Now, the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever, so the desire to procrastinate will force you to tackle the jobs on your list. Then, as the deadline approaches you will finish the job. This works even better if (as is usually the case) an extension of the deadline is possible, but you can conceal this knowledge from yourself until the last possible moment. That way, you get a second round of creative procrastination, plus you have enough time to do the main job properly.
That’s all revision. My new idea for today links this to my long-standing advocacy of word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on.
And here’s the link. If you’re involved in a big project like a book, or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines. But, if you make a rule of being caught up on your word target at the end of the week, you create an automatic deadline for yourself. While doing your best to avoid dealing with this deadline, you create an automatic opportunity for creative procrastination, during which you can deal with admin tasks, write blog posts, sort out your reference system and so on.
Obviously, everyone is different. But this has certainly worked for me and, as a by-product, for you, my readers (at least, those of you who don’t just come here to get annoyed at whatever lefty nonsense I’m banging on with today). In the past 10 years, WordPress tells me, I’ve written over 5000 blog posts, while still keeping up the supply of books and journal articles for which I earn my living, and, I hope, managing to keep plenty of time for family and friends.
The political right seems eager to open new fronts in the culture wars. The latest, from the WSJ, is running (I won’t link to their piece, but to this translation). I’m happy to say that I am on the correct (that is, left) side of this latest battle. Apparently, liberal elitist runners have bumper stickers indicating the longest distance (in miles) they have run, say 26.2 for a marathon. Real Americans, on the other hand, never leave their cars (except to move from the garage to the couch) and therefore have stickers saying 0.0.
I usually write a post on 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice that brought a temporary end to the Great War that engulfed Europe in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, until the end of the 20th century. But nothing I write could match this from Paul Keating. The core of the piece
The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.
The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.
But all of it is worth reading and remembering, along with Keating’s 1993 speech at the funeral of the unknown Australian soldier.
I’m currently reading Scarcity by by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. At this stage, I’m inclined to sympathise with the unnamed colleague who commented “There’s already a science of scarcity. It’s called economics”. So far, it’s mostly straightforward applications of the observation that time and attention are scarce resources, combined with some fairly familiar observations from behavioral econ on how people fail to optimise either the first-order problems of allocating a tight budget or the second order problem of allocating time and attention to the first-order problem (my terms here, not theirs). However, I’m only part way through, and the authors promise to show how their approach differs from the way in which economists would normally think about this kind of problem.
This post is about a specific and well known observation cited by Mullainathan and Shafir. Faced with paying $100 for an item that could be had elsewhere for $50, most people are willing to put in a fair bit of effort (say, driving for an hour) to get the lower price.[^1] On the other hand if the item costs $1050 and could be had for $1000, people with reasonably high incomes mostly pay up, instead of driving to the other store. This is obviously inconsistent with standard opportunity cost.
It’s safe to say that, little as I expected of the Newman government, the reality has generally been worse. Still, I’m going to give them credit on whenever it seems due, and here’s the first thing they’ve done that I can happily support. Following the recommendations of a study commissioned by the previous Labor government, it’s planned to drop the reverse parking component of the Queensland driving test. Ever since I failed my first driving test on this score 40 years ago, I’ve regarded it as a piece of utter stupidity. Why should anyone else be concerned whether I can reverse park, any more than they should care whether I can change my own oil? If anything, the worse I am at parallel parking, the better for everyone else – not only do I leave more spots for them, but they don’t face the risk of being jammed in a spot by someone who has skilfully parked their car with millimetres to spare.
This seems absolutely obvious. But, to give the contrary view, I turn the mike over to Paul Turner from motoring body RACQ, who manages to ignore the obvious contradictions in his statement.
“What we want is safer drivers, so we think the more it leans to a strengthening of the licensing system, the better,” Mr Turner said.
He said although reverse parking did not carry a high crash risk, it was still a “technical skill” that deserved a place in the driving test.
I’d suggest that a more relevant “technical skill” would be a stiff test in formal logic. That would clear an awful lot of bad drivers off the road.
With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others. So, in the spirit of adventure, I’m going to step away from my usual program of soft and fluffy topics like the bubbliness of bitcoins, the uselessness of navies and the agnotology of climate denial, and tackle the thorny question of running vs walking.
Happily, and unlike, say climate science, this is a question on which you can find a reputable scientific study to support just about any position you care to name, and even some that appear to support both sides, so I’m just going to pick the ones I like, draw the conclusions I want, and invite you all to have it out in the comments thread. I’m also going to attempt the classic move of representing the opposing positions as extremes, relative to which I occupy the sensible centre.
Like many of us, I’m engaged in a constant struggle to maintain a healthy weight and fitness level, and being an economist, I naturally like to think about this in quantitative terms (I’m not alone in this).
The basic equation is simple: Energy used – energy consumed = fat burnt. But to make sense of this equation, we need units, and that raises the immediate questions:
Calories or kilojoules? and
How much do I have to burn to lose 1kg of fat?
The short answers are: Calories and 9000 Cal
More over the fold
My essay in (the new and exciting) Aeon magazine looking at Keynes’ suggestion that we could achieve decent living standards for all with an average of 15 hours a week of market work has had mostly favorable responses. But Kevin Vallier at the Bleeding Hearts Libertarian blog has now written a lengthy response and he doesn’t like it. Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say, since he throws a lot of adjectives (sectarian, morally impoverished and so on) at me without actually spelling out an objection.
Vallier’s response is in three parts. The first is a lengthy and fairly accurate, though hostile, summary of my general political position. He doesn’t offer a substantive criticism, but snipes about semantics Vallier objects, for example, to my “derisive” use of the term “market liberalism’ to describe “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years”. In fact, as I said in Zombie Economics, I picked the term precisely to avoid the pejorative connotations of the more commonly used “neoliberalism”. What does Vallier propose here? I can’t spell out “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years” every time I want to refer to the ideas I’m criticising. In essence, I think he is upset that, by giving any name to the dominant ideas of recent decades, I am pointing out that they represent an ideology, with a history, rather than a set of timeless truths.
The second part of Vallier’s response is a summary of the main argument of my essay, but so brief that a reader who didn’t follow the link would have a very limited idea of what I was saying. The third part criticises me for advocating “coercion” against people who want to work hard and make money. Vallier doesn’t say what he means by this. The obvious incorrect inference, drawn by quite a few of his readers, is that I’m advocating statutory limits on hours of paid work. However, he doesn’t seem to mean that. Rather, he seems to object to high income earners being required to pay taxes to support people who don’t work.
But this raises a puzzle. The only policy proposal I discuss in any detail is that for a guaranteed minimum income. But Vallier supports this – in fact, it’s pretty much the central distinction between Bleeding Heart Libertarians and the regular Republican+legal drugs kind. So, is he inferring (correctly) that I’d propose a higher minimum than the BHLs? Or something else? I really don’t know.
A quick post to wish my readers all the best for 2013. I’ll put up some substantive posts and open threads soon, but in the meantime, feel free to express your wishes for 2013. Just for this post, I’d like everyone to accentuate the positive and avoid conflict with other commenters. Normal service will resume soon.